As a biophiliac, I've been thinking a lot lately about nature, especially now that summer struggles to show its welcomed face here in rain-swept, chilly Boston. I know that many of you restore yourselves (or "de-stress," "re-charge," or whatev) by spending time with family, going on vacation, doing yoga, jogging, watching TV, reading, or meditating. I do all of those restorative activities too, but my go-to strategy for restoration has always been walking in nature. After a long, hard day of writing, you're sure to find me walking along the seashore or hiking in the Blue Hills.
Nature slows me down, calms me, enables me to regain focus on what matters most in life -- my own well-being and supporting the well-being of the people around me. Nature is a kind of medicine for me.
I'm in the middle of a terrific book called "The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative," written by Florence Williams, who is (perhaps unsurprisingly) an editor at "Outside" magazine. The book connects cutting-edge neuroscientific and psychological research to the positive impact nature has on us. While I don't need 38 research studies to tell me that walks in nature make my happier and more creative, Ms. Williams' excellent book makes a powerful scientific case for the health impacts of nature.
Like me, many Japanese people don't need science to make the "nature = happiness" connection. "The Nature Fix" opens up in Japan, exploring the popular Japanese practice of "shinrin yoku," which can be loosely translated as "forest bathing" or "forest therapy." Williams says the Japanese are among the hardest working and most stressed-out people on the planet. The morning commute in Tokyo each days, as she describes it, sounds like something out of "Game of Thrones," with white-gloved train company employees tasked with shoving more and more commuters into already packed train cars. Tokyo traffic is even worse.
Yet on weekend, many Japanese flock to 48 government-run forests around the country for a restorative dose of shinrin yoku. They simply walk in the forest, breathing in the scents of the trees and the flowers, stopping to watch the birds alight on branches, listening intently to a symphony of birdsong, and bathing in the sensory, restorative pleasures of being fully present in natural landscapes. I don't wait for weekends for shinrin yoku, but try to "bathe in nature" every day.
Nature slows us down, slows our thinking (much like meditation does), it engages all our senses, and brings us back to where we came from and most want to be. As of 2008, most of the global population now lives in cities, which is completely different from how humanity has lived for thousands of years. As scientist E.O. Wilson writes, "the human brain evolved in a biocentric world," surrounded by nature. We're at home there.
I am NOT against cities. I live and work in a great city, Boston, and love visiting cities like New York and London. But I do think cities can disconnect us from nature if we're not careful. The great 19th Century urban architect Frederick Law Olmstead, who built Central Park in New York City and the glorious Emerald Necklace (a series of interconnected parks) here in Boston, always wrote about the benefits natural landscapes offer people living in big cities. Omstead believed greenspaces make us happier, kinder, and more reflective, and he dedicated his life to building urban greenspaces like Central Park..
We need to access different parts of ourselves to be fully human, by definition. We have a body, a mind, a spirit, and all of them need constant nourishing. Walks in nature, or shinrin yoku, do exactly that for me, and can do it for you. I could spend some time explaining the neuroscience of nature's positive impact on human brain chemistry, but I won't. You can pick up "The Nature Fix" for all the science you could ever want (and more).
Suffice to say that it's often healthier to be "bottom up" in the way we use our brains. Instead of constantly accessing the rational brain, the thinking machine that sits at the top of our brain and can trigger endless ruminations over every thought, feeling, and action, we also need to use our lower, more primal brain. The bottom part of our brain doesn't think so much -- it's the child-like brain that smiles automatically, reflexively when a red-plumed cardinal alights on the park bench next to him or her.
In Buddhism, the "child's brain" is celebrated and sought after -- much of Eastern and Western thought/religion is about discovering ways of knowing that simply feel things as a way of "knowing" things. You might call it mysticism, but it's deeply human. This "child's brain" is fully open, assumes nothing but is ready to see the wonder in all things. It is, in my view, the beginning of all knowledge and learning and compassion. I'm not saying you shouldn't think from the top down, using your rational, thinking-machine brain. I'm not Pollyana about the sometimes-bad intentions of other people (politicians and used car salespeople, especially). The rational, thinking brain is there for good reason, But use "bottom up" thinking too. Empty your brain sometimes, turn off (as the popular phrase from the 1960s), and you'll discover wisdom there too.
Use all parts of your brain to be human. This isn't a zen koan telling you to see all things by simply closing your eyes (although that's a nice thought). I'm just saying that being in nature can help you think better and be more fully yourself.
So when you get some time, or are feeling completely fried in the ol' noodle (happens to me often), you should consider getting outdoors for some shinrin yoku. Bring a granola bar and some water too!